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Highway 212 crash scene

New sections of Highway 212 alternate between two and four lanes between Joliet and Laurel. The Montana Department of Transportation plans complete construction on four lanes next year.

The problematic, partially completed four-lane highway between Rockvale and Laurel will get additional safety signage soon.

Motorists, particularly regular commuters, have complained that drivers are confused about where two-lane highway begins and ends since new sections of Highway 212 opened in late June.

Two fatal crashes, including a head-on collision have occurred, prompting the Carbon County Commission to write to the Montana Department of Transportation, imploring it to quickly finish four lanes over the entire 11 miles. The busy road section initially was scheduled for completion in 2022, but pressure from the public and the commissioners prompted MDOT to prioritize funding the $8 million project and move up construction to 2020.

Meanwhile, what more can be done now to make that road as safe as possible?

Over the past few weeks, MDOT re-inspected the 11-mile stretch of Highway 212 and determined that extra steps should be taken to alert motorists that the road switches from two-lane to four-lane and back again, repeatedly. MDOT District Administrator Rod Nelson said Monday that the signs already in place meet safety standards, but additional signs, although not "required," would enhance motorist safety.

Altogether, 19 additional signs have been ordered from the department's shop in Helena. Weather permitting, they should be installed within the next three weeks, Nelson said. The added signs will draw more attention to switches between four-lane divided highway and two-lane highway with oncoming traffic. Signs will mark where divided highway ends and begins, and two-way no passing zones will be marked.

The workers who will install these signs are the same people who will be driving snow plows this week if the forecast Thanksgiving storm arrives. So weather may slow down the sign installation.

With the holiday travel season starting this week, all motorists should take extra care to arrive at their destinations safely. So far, 2019 doesn't have good safety statistics. As of Monday, 171 people had been killed by motor vehicle crashes in Montana since Jan. 1. That traffic toll is worse than 2018 (with 10 more deaths) and just one fewer fatality than at the end of November 2017.

The Billings Montana Highway Patrol District, which includes Yellowstone, Carbon, Big Horn, Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties, has been hardest hit with 37 traffic fatalities, the Kalispell District has the second worst toll with 29 deaths. Among 20 urban traffic fatalities statewide, nine happened in Billings or just outside the city limits.

MHP data confirms that the same old risk factors are involved in this year's tragedies: driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, speeding and failing to use seat belts.

When roads are icy or snow-packed, as they may be later this week, extra caution is warranted.

"Every year we have a number of snow plows that people run into the back of them," Nelson noted. "When you can't see anything, slow down and don't drive into that cloud of snow."

In a snow plow crash, the other vehicle usually sustains the most damage and injuries have occurred.

Drive alert, sober and buckled up, so you and your loved ones can enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.